Monday, November 7, 2011

RA Design Log 5: Making Iconic Monsters

It's a real head-scratcher of a puzzle.

We all pretty much know them: the rust monster, the mind flayer, the beholder, the drow, and other monsters that are incredibly popular. And a couple of them represent a design challenge in Rappan Athuk. Reason: Necromancer Games had a special contract with WotC allowing them to include beholders,mind flayers, and displacer beasts in the 3e version of Rappan Athuk, and that deal isn't available for Pathfinder or Swords & Wizardry.

A Sinister Opportunity
So, in the gatherings around the Watercooler of Many Things, down in the deep levels of the Frog God lair, we've taken the approach that -- from a design perspective -- this is actually a tremendous opportunity forced upon us by circumstances. Really, the presence of these iconic monsters in Rappan Athuk's 3e version was part of the "old school feel." And there's no denying that running like hell from a beholder is as old school as it gets. But on the other hand, the truly masterpiece modules from the TSR glory days were those that INTRODUCED iconic monsters either in context like the D series where mind flayers were seen in their natural environment, or where they appeared as entirely new monsters (the drow).

The Fiendish Plot
We're aiming for a masterpiece with Rappan Athuk, a real pinnacle event. And that means we need to push beyond the boundaries in the same way that TSR pushed the envelope with the classic modules.

Which means the introduction of a couple of iconic monsters. They're on the drawing board at this time. Simply as a matter of not fixing what ain't broke, they're going to be swapped into pretty much the same areas as the original iconic monsters appeared, or there would be too much tinkering around. They may also appear in some of the new areas.

What Makes a Monster "Iconic?"
The interesting question, though, that I've run into while designing these new monsters, is the fundamental question of what makes a monster one of these iconic types. Clearly, the baseline requirement is that it's new,not something from regular folklore (the drow skate closest to folklore, but they have a wealth of non-folkloric detail in the D series). In addition to novelty, though, I think there's more to it. For one thing, at least in the case of the beholder, mind-flayer, and drow, they have to be intelligent enough to be behind a variety of different nefarious schemes. I think this is true even if in the module itself, they are only involved in one particular plot. The reason being that in order for the monster to capture the imagination, the DM has to get a glimmer in the mind's eye of other possibilities, wider ideas, other adventures that could stem from the monster. A good monster works well in the module where it appears, but an ICONIC monster has to grab the imagination INDEPENDENTLY of the adventure in which it appears.

I might have more to say about this later, but so far this has struck me as the key factor involved with creating a truly iconic monster.

Any other thoughts about what constitutes an iconic monster are definitely welcome, and will be discussed at the Watercooler of Many Things.

First Design Note
Second Design Note
Third Design Note
Fourth Design Note


  1. I think what makes a monster iconic is how much face time said monster gets on the cover of modules and in miniature and what not. I think it's foisted on the gaming public rather than being a fan favorite.

  2. Maybe they need to plug into a particular undercurrent of fiction. Drow are sexy and dark, mind flayers have that whole Lovecraftian "fear of the unearthly" thing going for them and beholders are gonzo. So, work at creating something new that plugs into those categories or an untapped category.

  3. Dark Elves are pretty generic. Add in a little 1975 Alice Cooper and put their name in the title of one of the first "campaign" series of modules in 1978 and you've got an iconic monster.

  4. Each of them is not obviously mythological and represents the DM or game designer going over the top in some way: the baddest-ass monster on the prime material, the top of the psionic food chain, the super munchkinaceous NPC race, the "DM screw with you" monster...

  5. My list of iconic monsters (1e or earlier)

    - Mind Flayer
    - Drow
    - Yuan-Ti
    - Myconids
    - Beholder
    - Rust Monster
    - Gelatinous Cube
    - Roper

    Some of these are 'one-shot' monsters in that you won't have a whole society of them.

    I think really what makes them iconic is that they are 'surprising' in some way that engages the players.

    - Mind Flayers - they suck you brains out!
    - Drow - elves can be evil!
    - Yuan-Ti - straight from old Pulp Fiction stories
    - Myconids - talking mushrooms!
    - Beholder - weird and deadly
    - Rust Monster - surprising effect
    - Gelatinous Cube - just crazy
    - Roper - a fake rock!

    Now of course there are other monsters that have surprising capability, but most of those are grounded in our shared pop-culture and thus players would simply view them as 'just like this other thing' instead of unique and memorable. Like all the variants of 'evil humanoid'; they're too much alike.

  6. Take a dwarf and give him purple skin. Make him evil and give him some innate abilities and throw a nation full of 'em at the PCs.

    "That's a rather silly enemy" you might think. That's pretty much how I feel about the Drow. They just don't work for me and I've always been a bit puzzled about the fascination with them.

    Can't you just take regular elves and make them chaotic?

  7. @DuBeers agree completely about the drow

    As far as the Displacer Beast goes, how about the Kamadan from the Tome of Horrors complete?

  8. I think drow are overrated and overused, although they're okay in the D series. What you can't argue with, though, is that they're an iconic D&D monster.

  9. Iconic? If you insist. But my point remains, why not plug-in chaotic elves wherever you've excised the drow? It isn't like the change will equal anything but a different word in the text.

  10. Let me play devil's advocate here for a moment.

    I think shooting for iconic is like shooting for a hit record. If a musician could produce a hit on command, why would they make anything else? The iconic status of some of these monsters is really unpredictable. Though the "weird" can certainly help in some cases (catoblepas). It takes time for many of these monsters to become known. So, I think we will really only know in many years which stick and which don't. To take a more recent example, I think some of the aspects of Dark Sun have taken on an iconic aspect, but there was no way that could have been planned.

    Also, there are plenty of iconic mythological monsters in D&D, though their specific D&D incarnation is relatively distinctive (e.g. the many-legged basilisk). The red dragon (borrowed most directly from Smaug, probably?).

    Or pig-faced orcs. Those are pretty iconic now, and not at all novel, even when they first debuted.

    I think the real question for a project like Rappan Athuk is whether you want to go for innovative or recognizable. I admit to not being familiar with RA, having never played the 3E version.

    Sorry for the rambling post. I feel like I'm struggling to get my ideas out right now. :-)

  11. Some other examples:

    Otyugh - iconic weird

    Rakshasa - iconic mythologic (though the smoking jacket is novel, I admit)

    Roper - iconic weird

    Wraith - mythological & Tolkien-based, iconic in D&D due to game mechanics: level drain

  12. Well, I may have unintentionally derailed the conversation. Apologies. My main point is removing the drow has an easy fix, substituting a tribe of chaotic elves.

    Now, it may be Matt is shooting for something with an equal "wow" factor to replace them. Further, a large band or even nation of chaotic elves doesn't fill the need he envisions.

    Otherwise, put in chaotic elves. If need be, buff their HD/hp and give them magic items to mimic a similar band of drow. Heck, you could even have them use tribal tattoos or such to distinguish them from the good kind.

    Just a thought. Sorry if lost the point in the side discussion.

  13. Each of these 3 iconic monsters has a powerful hook going for it.

    Drow: like Elric, only colour-inverted. So it hangs off an existing, desirable property by Moorcock.
    Mind-flayer: like Cthulhu and/or Mi-go. So it hangs off an existing, desirable property by Lovecraft.

    ...makes me wonder if there's some other high-traction, still-unexploited beasties out there to file the serial numbers off... Pelgranes? Giger's alien? Dementors? The Luggage?

    Beholder: doesn't rely on a pre-existing property (AFAIK), but: is there any bit of the human body as squeamish as the eyeball? Is there anything more perverse than being threatened and chased around by a flying eyeball? I don't think that monster is iconic by publishers' fiat, I think it's iconic because you know, as soon as you see it, that you're not in Kansas/Middle Earth/Narnia any more. Not sure how to help you there. Could there be a dentistry-related monster? Something that convincingly and viscerally combines fear of spiders, needles and heights? Because that, I think, is the kind of fuel the Beholder runs on.

  14. more thing about the beholder: it's freakish and unnerving and novel... and it's round.

    There's a reason cartoonists tend to make everything round: round things are likeable and child-like, thus saleable. They're also measurable - you can easily see how far they extend - and easily illustratable (ie ready to be rendered into an icon). That's why Pokemon are pretty much all round: they have to work as tiny little icons on a Game Boy.

    But all that roundness works directly against scary and unnerving. Zak's answer to any over-familiar monster is to de-Pokemonify it, make it less round, more spiky, punky, environmental, immeasurable, liable to sneak up behind you or to be always already behind you. That's great for monsters made out of ideas. It can work great in books, or in the hands of a good DM. But it's the opposite of iconic. Scary and round is a powerful combo, is what I'm saying.

  15. don't think that monster is iconic by publishers' fiat, I think it's iconic because you know, as soon as you see it, that you're not in Kansas/Middle Earth/Narnia any more.

    I still can't buy it. If you see an elf, you know the same thing, the ebony skin and white hair of a draw shouldn't tell you anything the pointy ears and elfin features of a high elf do not.

    That being said, I don't want this to turn into a "thing". I'm merely highlighting a different point of view. As I see it, the drow were far scarier as a rumor without substance ... and I don't see them as iconic at all. YMMV.

  16. @DuBeers ...I was talking about the Beholder. I'm totally with you on the Drow thing, except for the Elric/Bowie angle, which non-dark elves miss by association with Tolkien.

  17. Ah! My mistake. At any rate, I've been pondering my disaffection with drow and I think I've figured it out. Of the three monsters Matt lists: mind-flayer, beholder, and drow; the first two were in the OD&D rules (the mind-flayer through SR and beholder through GH). The drow was not. I"m thinking that since I began play with the publication of the original boxed set, maybe I still think of them (in an odd way) as "those new monsters". My introduction to them beyond the "dark rumors of an evil race of elves" came with all the other variant demi-humans and humanoids: gray elves, valley elves, derro, duergar, flind, lizard kings, norkers etc ... Too many variations. Even in my home campaign, I eliminated most of the variant humanoids and just had goblins of various degrees of toughness.

    So, the fault lays mostly with me. Maybe if I'd come into the hobby with AD&D I'd see the drow differently. But I didn't and I don't.

    That being said, I'll bow out of this part of the discussion. Not from any rancor on my part or perceived on the part of others, but because anything significant I have to say on the matter has been said.